Synonyms: Garden onion, common onion, shallot
Scientific Name: Allium cepa L.
Family: Alliaceae (Onion family)
The steppes of western and central Asia, probably from Afghanistan.
Alliin, allicin, polysulfides, propanthial oxide, vitamins, flavonoids in the onion skin.
Onions are so ubiquitous in our cooking that we often forget this is a vegetable with the potential to grow and bloom. Few people are probably aware that it is also a medicinal plant. The garden onion with its dry outer skin, originally brown but with cultivated species sometimes white or red, can be found in any household – where it is sometimes overlooked long enough to produce green shoots. We savour these shoots as the tube-like leaves of spring onions. From June to August of the second year after planting, onions will produce a spherical flower head consisting of numerous tiny greenish-white flowers. These flower heads balance on stalks which may reach a height of 50 to 120 cm. The many layers of the onion are in fact leaves which have been transformed into storage organs. Only the bottommost part of the bulb, the round base from which the roots grow, is still a piece of the stalk. When the onion sprouts the tips of the layers grow and change their form above ground.
Fresh onions do not only taste good in food. The sulfur-containing constituents have antimicrobial and antiviral properties and strengthen the immune system. They protect against deposits in the blood vessels and encourage the breakdown of blood clots.
Onions stimulate secretions, aid digestion, wake the appetite and encourage wound healing. They help prevent flu, colds and sore throats, and soothe coughs. Homeopathic medicine uses potentised onion for the treatment of earache, numerous cold symptoms, asthma and senile bronchitis. It also helps in the treatment of rheumatism. Proven home remedies for colds and coughs are spoonfuls of raw diced onions with honey, and onion syrup made by boiling diced onions with sugar. Packs and compresses with raw diced onion are useful for almost all inflammatory conditions, including inflammation of the frontal and paranasal sinuses, abscesses, boils, tonsillitis and pneumonia as well as earache. Placing a fresh onion cut in half on an insect bite or sting will relieve symptoms.
The origin of the scientific name Allium is not known. The term probably comes from the language of the original inhabitants of southern Italy, the Messapii. Today, few traces remain of this language. The scientific epithet cepa is derived from the Latin cepe = onion. The English word onion is also thought to derive from Latin: the word unio originally applied to a particular species of pearl-like onion.
There is evidence that the onion has been in use as a medicine, flavouring and vegetable for more than 5000 years in its native Asia. In the early Neolithic Age it arrived in China and India, where it was regarded as a potent protection against infectious diseases. In China the onion is synonymous with intelligence. Midwives there touch the head of a newborn baby with an onion to ensure cleverness.
The Egyptians sacrificed onions to the gods, fed them to the workmen building the pyramids and placed them with the dead as sustenance on their journey through eternity. It was thought that the growth of the onion was related to the phases of the moon. Priests dedicated them to the goddess Isis, mistress of the cycles of the moon and of women, and protectress of the water of life. The onion was also thought to have aphrodisiac properties – the Ancient Egyptian word for testis is the same as that for onion.
In the North American steppes Native Americans harvested wild onions as vegetables and used them for medicinal purposes. ‘Chicago’ can be translated as ‘place of the wild onion’.
The Romans brought the onion to Europe, probably from Asia, and spread its cultivation in the course of their military campaigns. However, they regarded this vegetable as a poor-man’s food, and in better circles it was despised for its smell. Nevertheless the onion became one of the most common vegetable species in Europe. In the 15th century the Dutch began to cultivate diverse kinds which differed in form, colour and flavour. Many myths and legends surround the onion. To it was ascribed the ability to bind poisons, evil and dark powers and thus to keep them away from human beings. Everywhere in Europe there were customs involving hanging onions in houses and stables and over sickbeds or wearing them as amulets. They were supposed to protect against disease, demons and envious eyes.
Some tried using onions to foretell the future. An onion was cut and 12 ‘cups’ made from its layers. These were sprinkled with salt and laid out on Christmas or New Year’s Eve to form the onion calendar. Each ‘cup’ stood for a month. The amount of water that had collected in the ‘cups’ the following day indicated how wet the relevant month would be. Between Christmas and Epiphany, young women wishing to marry placed one onion in the parlour for each possible suitor. If one of them sprouted, she would be married that year.
Why do onions make us cry? When we cut them, they release propanthial S-oxide. An enzyme in the cell wall produces this sulfur compound as soon as the onion is injured. In the wild this clever mechanism protects the plant effectively from animals that might want to eat it. Meat cooks appreciate onions not only for their flavour. Marinating tough meat overnight in a mixture of onion juice and olive oil makes it beautifully tender.
The plant from another perspective
In their first year onions sprout a crown of hollow tubular leaves with which they collect sunlight to store in the bulb. In their second year, using this stored power they develop a spherical flower head of inconspicuous blossoms which grows high in the air on a straight stalk. A polarity is thus formed between the cool, watery, earth-oriented bulb and the airy, light-oriented flower. The inconspicuous individual flowers are attended by the sulfur compounds which permeate the whole onion plant. These fiery compounds bearing light and warmth are in essence part of the flower. However, they transform and displace the flowery property away from the airiness of the flower to the liquid-earthiness of the root. This sulfuric aspect links the opposite poles of the onion. It stimulates the human metabolic processes, digestion and bile flow and harmonises the life processes. Congested fluids start to flow again, reminiscent of the flower sprouting from the congested bulb in the plant’s second year. Swelling due to inflammation subsides.